On a spring morning, Kevin Davis set out across the prairie in his truck to find out why his cattle weren’t turning up at his ranch’s drinking water trough down by the corral. It would be the start of a harrowing journey.
It had rained the night before and on that June day in 2021 Davis, who counts five generations of his family in southeastern Colorado, was out on his Kiowa County spread to see if his 160 cows and calves had scattered.
As he drove up to one of the oil and gas wells that dot the ranch he saw a moat of oil — a large spill — surrounding the site. Part of the fence was down and cows and calves were wandering around the pad. One cow was dead, oil coming out of its nose, others were just lying around. The hiss of escaping gas filled the air.
Five more cows would die and Davis feared the entire herd had been contaminated.
While there have been repeated clashes between suburbs and oil and gas development on the Front Range, ranching and oil and gas have comfortably cohabited out on the Eastern Plains for decades. But Davis found that when things go wrong in these rural, sparsely settled stretches it can be difficult to set them straight.
It has been a struggle, Davis said, to get things fixed by the operator, Denver-based Western Operating Co., or clear answers from the Colorado Energy and Carbon Management Commission, or ECMC, the regulatory agency previously known as the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
“I am not against oil and gas,” Davis said. “I just want it done right.”
While going back five generations, the ranch outside the town of Eads was settled by Davis’ great-grandfather and Kevin Davis, now 45, moved his family there in 2006.
The address for Davis’ K&T Cattle Co. is Chivington, which was once a town but is now pretty much a sign on the highway and a monument, noting that the town was named after Col. John Chivington, who led a massacre on a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment at nearby Sand Creek in 1864.
On the monument there is a photo of Chivington with two other horsemen in front of the town’s grocery, flour and feed store. The rider in the middle is Davis’ great-grandfather Kent France.
(When he stayed at his grandparents’ ranch as a boy Davis said that the thump-thump-thump of the gas turbines at the wells kept him up at night. “I asked my grandparents if they couldn’t shut them off,” Davis said.)
The wells on the ranch were drilled between 1966 and 1975 and while the family owns the surface, the mineral rights and therefore right to drill on the property belong to an oil and gas company.
This so-called split estate, where two separate parties own rights on one property, is common across the West from New Mexico to Wyoming to Utah. The federal Bureau of Land Management owns 700 million acres of split estate minerals in the region.
Since Davis took over the ranch, first leasing it and then buying it, there have, he said, been a string of incidents.
About 10 years ago, Davis had saddled up to check on the herd when his horse became skittish. Davis saw oil flowing down the road from a broken flowline on a well site. When he couldn’t reach the operator, he got in touch with a friend who was in the oil business who told him which valves to shut off.
There is no record of this spill. Davis said back then he didn’t know he could file complaints with the oil and gas commission. Since November 2021 there have been four recorded spill violations in the ECMC database.
Another time he said he found one of his calves with electrical hot wire fencing wrapped around its neck and had to tranquilize the animal to remove the wire. Poor fencing that lets cattle into the well pads has been a chronic problem, Davis said.
On a recent tour of the ranch with The Colorado Sun, Davis came upon a calf inside a well site doing battle with the barbed wire fence in an effort to get out. Finally, the calf managed to hurl itself into and over the barbed wire.
In May 2021, just four weeks before the cattle contamination, at that very site of the calf and the barbed wire battle, a heater treater, used to separate the mix of oil and salty water that comes out of the well, caught fire.
“The heater treater caught fire due to a pin hole in the fire tube,” the ECMC report said. “911 was called and the fire department responded and extinguished the fire.”
In the weeks that followed the cattle contamination, five more cows died. The remaining animals in the herd of about 160 “just laid around,” Davis said.
“It looked like they had pneumonia,” Davis. “We went through a bottle of Draxxin.” A 250-milliliter bottle of the antibiotic costs $750.
“The vet said it wouldn’t do any good,” Davis. “He said the oil settles in the lungs, liver and stomach lining and makes it look like pneumonia.”
Davis sent half a dozen manure samples to Colorado State University’s veterinary disease lab in Rocky Ford. “They all test positive for hydrocarbons,” said Gene Niles, a CSU associate professor who directs the lab.
The dilemma facing Davis was that his veterinarian told him that if one of the animals was contaminated, he’d have to assume they were all contaminated. The ranch is a “cow and calf” operation, birthing and selling calves.
“I gave up the profit from my calves for that year,” Davis said.
Western Operating fined $197,800
The ECMC issued a notice of alleged violation to Western Operating and Davis said “the cleanup started pretty quick.”
Still, for another year the rancher had to disclose to cattle buyers that the few cows he did sell had been exposed to oil.
Cattle prices vary, as commodity prices do, but in a good market a 7- to 8-year-old cow can fetch $2,100. The cattle that Davis sold went for a fraction of that, he said.
Whatever contamination there was is not passed on to the calves so after three seasons, Davis said “I think we’ve got it culled out.”
Still, when he casts his eye over the herd he can still see an animal here or there with a rough, mangy coat — a sign that it was likely tainted by oil.
And Davis is still wrangling with Western Operating over fences, spills and broken equipment having filed 11 complaints with the ECMC this year.
Davis did note that, “in the last two years they’ve done quite a lot of remediation” and have begun to replace barbed wire with sturdy steel-tube panel fences.
What has also been frustrating is conflicting information from ECMC environmental and inspection staff for something such as whether a remediation has been completed. “You don’t know who to believe,” Davis said.
Western Operating declined to comment for this article after email and phone requests.
The company operates 81 producing wells and 14 injection wells across six counties with concentrations in Logan and Kiowa counties, It also has 22 dry and abandoned wells and 17 out-of-service wells, according to ECMC data.
In a filing with the oil and gas commission, Kevin O’Toole, an attorney for Western Operating, said the company acknowledged the June spill and when it learned of the accident “it immediately mobilized equipment to vacuum up the oil in the berm, which was accomplished the same day that Western learned of the spill.”
The company said the incident may have been caused by cattle breaking down a fence and rubbing up against a valve that then released the oil.
“Western regrets the loss of livestock which occurred and has made attempts to resolve issues involving compensation to the landowner,” O’Toole said.
Davis has set the compensation and the full value of his herd and lost revenue totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. “There was never an amount mentioned on their part,” Davis said.
“Western has not been able to resolve its issues with the landowner,” O’Toole said.
In September of 2022, the ECMC staff and Western Operating agreed to a consent order under which the operator would pay $197,800 for violations for the K&T Cattle Co. incident.
Davis hired a lawyer and intervened in the process, arguing that the fine was insufficient. “I am not getting anything out of this, but that fine is too low,” Davis said.
Bigger problems reported in northeastern Colorado
While Western Operating and Davis were at loggerheads in Kiowa County, the oil and gas company was facing an even bigger problem in Logan County, where state inspectors found substantial erosion and degradation at two of the company’s sites starting in 2017.
For five years, the ECMC inspected the two sites and issued order after order, finally levying a $746,810 penalty in March 2023. All but $200,000 was suspended provided Western Operating remediates the sites.
The cases ran for so long because they were delayed in the transition of the oil and gas commission to its new mission protecting public health, safety and welfare and new rules under Senate Bill 181 and by the COVID pandemic, Megan Castle, an ECMC spokeswoman, said.
“We now have additional resources to address backlogs such as this,” Castle said.
Under the new rules, every operator must file a financial assurance plan to show that it can plug, remediate and abandon its wells. Western Operating’s plan was rejected by the ECMC staff and is slated for a hearing before the commission.
The ECMC staff calculated that it will take $10 million to plug all of Western’s wells, while the company estimates it will cost half as much. The staff is recommending that the operator immediately put up $542,000, 5% of the total.
Back at the ranch near Eads, Davis cut across dirt roads and rutted two-wheel paths assaying the impact of the oil and gas operations on his land. The plains stretch in all directions, a carpet of blue grama and buffalograss, spring green under blue skies.
But here or there is a spot where a well has been removed and only weeds grew back or a bald spot from a spill of oil or produced salt water.
“Nothing grows on salt,” Davis said. “I have to pay for every acre whether it’s covered with grass or oil or salt.”
“My dream was to come out here on the land,” Davis said, “but now you come to the realization that it will never be what it was. They will never get it all cleaned up.”